I am alternately fascinated and repelled by the coverage of mental health issues online. Like this Jezebel piece about how more kids are being diagnosed with depression that seems to blame mental health issues in young children on increased social media. (To be fair, the article they're responding to also brings up increased stress caused by social media. )
On the one hand, yes, social media has in some ways changed the ways kids interact with each other. Reactions are more instant, bullying is harder to escape. In other ways, I think social media has just raised adult awareness of the complex interactions and social hierarchy that kids have to navigate -- have kids ever been anything other than completely brutal to each other and those they consider outsiders?
I mean, other people have read "Lord of the Flies," right?
The savagery of children's interactions with each other aside, the writers talking about this also seem to obscure the fundamental nature of what clinical depression is; that is to say, clinical depression is an internal state, not one solely determined by external forces.
And by framing all children diagnosed with depression as victims of social media bullying (I do believe these kids exist), people are doing a profound disservice to all kids with mental health issues. Because, really, what we have is one of those chicken or egg situations -- are kids really getting depressed because of added stress or are they being bullied because they are depressed and thus easy targets? And there are kids who aren't bullied but are still depressed.
In any event, I can only look at early detection as a step forward. I feel that way both because kids really are under huge pressures (I don't much think of childhood as a great time) but also because when I was 9 years old, I regularly contemplated suicide. I say contemplated, but it was more serious than that. I had a plan.
I'm sure there are other kids who, at that age and in that same situation, felt the same -- and other kids than that who didn't feel the urge at all. Individuals are, after all, individual.
But this is about my early relationship with suicide, so I will start with this: I had a little felt pennant that I'd made in home ec or whatever they were calling it at the time. It was white felt with pink bubble letters that I had cut out by hand and then stitched to the felt. I think it said my name. It definitely had a little pink pig on it. Pigs were smart. I was smart. Pigs were fat. I was a fat.
I already knew how to sew, so even at the time it seemed like a ridiculous project. But I got really invested in making sure all of my stitches were perfectly straight and even. And when I took it home, it wasn't complete because I'd taken so long to make it perfect. I hung it up anyway, on the corkboard I had over my desk.
And behind it, on a little piece of paper I'd carefully torn to be as small as possible, I had the number for a suicide hotline.
I say I was 9. I might have been 8. I might have been 10. My memories are hazy because sometimes we block things out rather than remember just how awful they were. I wasn't in middle school yet, but I was staying at home a lot by myself after school. I knew I had the time and opportunity to make it happen.
I didn't think we had anything in the house that I could take -- no pills that would do the job. I didn't want to try to hang myself -- it seemed really unpleasant and like a thing I could easily mess up. I had visions of myself hanging there and slowly choking to death.
It wasn't so much that I wanted to die as it was that I just didn't want to exist anymore. It also seemed like a middle finger (which I would never have actually done because it was just so VULGAR and heaven forbid I should be vulgar) to everyone who tormented me. The thought of their remorseful anguish was far from a deterrent.
I settled on knives. I knew to cut up rather than across because I had read at some point about how easy it was to botch a suicide when cutting across the wrist.
But even in the midst of all of my analytic planning, I recognized that this was not precisely a healthy thing for me to be contemplating. Or, rather, I had moments when I knew that. I mean, when I was actively considering my options, it sounded like a really good idea. To just not exist anymore seemed like the most restful and wonderful thing I could imagine.
I think I found the suicide hotline number in the newspaper or something. Maybe I brought it home from health class. I convinced myself that, should I ever get so far in my planning as to actually put a knife to my skin (I definitely got so far as to stand in front of the knife drawer, peering in as though doing research into which blade would best suit), I would call the hotline as part of my process.
Like, I built it into my mental list of the steps I would take toward killing myself. My logic was that if they could talk me out of it, then it would have been a bad decision. And if they couldn't talk me out of it, I could do it anyway.
I did always like to be fair.
Every now and then, I try to imagine how a suicide hotline worker might have responded to a kid on the other end of the line. I'm not sure they were trained for that then -- and I'm not honestly sure they're trained for that now.
Because as long as people think it's inconceivable for children to struggle with serious mental health issues, people will refuse to see the signs that the children around them need help. I didn't have Facebook or email or Twitter or whatever. I had standardized testing but I tested well. What I really had was a mental health issue, one that manifested early and that no one was going to take seriously in the 1980s. One that people are still afraid of today.
I don't plan for suicide anymore. I haven't for a long time. Not because anything got better in particular but because I learned coping mechanisms and had family who loved me and did what they could to protect me. I gave myself the time to grow up and now I'm an adult. And I still have that mental health issue. But I don't have a plan. And that's something. I want other kids to be able to say that, to grow up and not have those plans anymore. To get to that point, we've got to take the mental health issues of kids seriously.
In the interest of that, maybe someone will write this down and put it somewhere safe:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline